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Starting in 2016, our state university system endured three successive rounds of annual budget cuts, with average 10-percent reductions resulting in a loss of more than a third of the system’s overall funding. Additional cuts, even, were on the table this past year. And while our state legislators ultimately avoided taking yet one more stab at the dismembered body of higher education, there has been no discussion of restoring any of those funds.
The experience of living with the metastasizing effects of austerity grants me some insight into what has been going on in Alaska. In July, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced a plan to strip the University of Alaska system of 41 percent of its operating budget. He has since tempered this plan, opting instead for a 20-percent cut to be meted out over a period of three years. After weathering three straight years of forced retirements, self-protective “pivots” to administration, and personal waterloos on my own campus, I cannot help but grieve for my colleagues in Alaska. Some of them, I know, will lose their jobs, or else be coerced into giving them up, as my own colleagues have been (my department lost 10 tenured/tenure-track faculty members — half of its roster — in four years and has not been permitted to rehire). But some of them, I know, will not, and I grieve for them, too.
If you build it, they will come; if you tear it down, they will go somewhere else.
Back in 2013, when I was finishing up my dissertation and heading out “on the market,” I did so in the company of a number of other tenure-track hopefuls. The end of that year saw two of us packing up and heading off to new jobs: me to North Dakota, another to Alaska. A third colleague at a nearby school went off to Wyoming. What all of these states and all of these schools have in common, of course, are economies that rely on natural-resource extraction. When the budget cuts first hit North Dakota in 2016, our state legislature cited falling oil prices. I had been hired at the tail end of a boom that was just starting to taper off and resemble healthily average rates of production.
Oil production in the state has grown since then and now outpaces the boom rates of 2014, even. But our campus has not recovered. The same will be true in Alaska, where the governor’s veto was spurred by campaign promises touting higher household revenue from the state’s Permanent Fund, which pays out dividends from oil revenue to private citizens.
But these are the obvious losses, the ones that could be counted and read about in the local newspaper, or in the The Chronicle. It is the many and lingering surreptitious forms of loss — loss of confidence, of spirit, of purpose — that do the real damage.
In the spring of 2018, I found myself occupying a spot at a banquet table as part of our campus’s annual Founders Day festivities. The event honors faculty and staff who are retiring from the university, alongside those who have won awards for service, research, or teaching. Two of my departmental colleagues were included among the latter, so a small group of us reserved a table (everyone — including award-winners — must pay to attend). No words can describe the bleakness of an affair recognizing dozens and dozens of middle-aged, energetic employees who have been told that it is the end of their career. The theme for the evening was a 1950s sock hop, which couldn’t have been less appropriate given the age of most of the honorees. Then there were the speeches. The president was supposed to serve as master of ceremonies, but he couldn’t attend because he was interviewing for a job at another university. (He didn’t get it, but he got one a year later and has since moved on.)
This is what I’m talking about when I talk about living with, or surviving, austerity. I’m talking about the nonmaterial consequences of material resource depletion, which can last for generations and make earnest attempts at normalcy appear shot through with undercurrents of gloom. But the feeling isn’t unique to campuses like mine — campuses that have already met and locked horns with the new, ascetic order.
If you build it, they will come; if you tear it down due to a maintenance backlog, they will go somewhere else — if they possibly can. But austerity is an infection. It spreads with those who run from it. As Karl Marx, writing in England but speaking to his native Germany, warns in the preface to his famous Capital, “De te fabula narratur!” The story is about you.